The Tranquility Wars, Gentry Lee

Bantam Spectra, 2000, 627 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57338-1

One of the most interesting panels of the 2004 World Science Fiction Convention dealt with the fine art of reviewing. Among other things, well-regarded critics on the panel discussed the problem of bad reviews: While no self-respecting reviewer can resist the allure of a killer zinger, there are consequences in publicly claiming that something isn’t worth the time (or the money) to read. One should be careful when writing words that will be read by thousands of readers.

I couldn’t help but cackle silently at this recommendation. Being an obscure reviewer, my readership numbers in the dozens and my influence is negligible. This is handy when I have to deal with stuff like Gentry Lee’s The Tranquility Wars. As for consequences and lost sales, there is no need to worry: As a well-known engineer and well-paid public speaker, Lee doesn’t needs the money, nor is he likely to suffer from the kvetching of a few Science Fiction fans. So let’s forget all about a critic’s responsibility and gleefully jump into a critical trashing, shall we?

The first problem with The Tranquility Wars is that there isn’t anything new or original about the premise of the novel. Our young protagonist, the dashing Hunter Blake, is about to leave his native asteroid for a study fellowship on Mars. But in transit, he’s kidnapped by evil pirates and forced (yes, forced) to work for them. After a while, the pirates let him go and so he goes to Mars to study. Then, what do you know, he comes to realize he’d rather be with the pirates. Then stuff happens to negate the tension of making difficult choices. The End. Not a genius-level plot outline, further complicated by the fact that nothing is surprising. Oh, and there is no Tranquillity War. Barely a juvenile government-versus-rebels spat in which, of course, the rebels are the good guys. Or at least the least-evil ones.

I might have gone along for the ride if it wasn’t for the fact that Hunter Blake, fellowship scholar, is one of the dumbest protagonists I’ve had the misfortune of reading about. His understanding of things is barely sufficient for continued survival. His romantic adventures are complicated by the fact that every female he sleeps with has a good fifty IQ points over him. Half the novel (a six hundred pages novel) is spent wanting to slap Blake around; the other half is darkened by the growing realization that Lee actually likes his own protagonist. (One thing for sure; he certainly loves his work on the “Rama” video game, because it survives intact as a significant part of this novel’s background.)

Let’s not talk about the writing style, nor the dialogue: In a hard-SF genre renowned for bad prose and lines that will never be said by any normal human being, The Tranquillity Wars should be hidden away in a closet as an embarrassment to the merely adequate writers in the field.

But let’s spend some time rehashing Lee’s peculiar guilty vision of sexual relationships. As with the Bright Messengers sequence, there is a lot of sex in this book, and almost all of it is a demonstration of why some writers should never approach the subject. Young Hunter Blake is, not to put too fine a point on it, a moron when it comes to relationships. His first crush is on a woman who proceeds to become one of the system’s best-known escorts. (it speaks volumes that almost all male characters know about her and become unthinking beasts in her presence.) But -aha!- his second Significant Other is the very model of motherhood. Ooh; madonna/whore, I wonder which one he’ll pick?

There are many, many things wrong about The Tranquility Wars and all of them are exacerbated by the ungodly length of the book. Gentry Lee may or may not underthink his novels, but he certainly overwrites the heck out of them. Hunter isn’t captured by the pirates until page 180. His inane inner monologues are stretched over paragraphs, making us loathe him even more. Simple predictable scenes takes pages to unfold; skipping entire passages becomes essential to make any kind of sane progress through the book.

Oh, just forget it, all right? This book may be fun to read for all the wrong reasons, but it’s still trash riding on the coattails of Lee’s “collaborations” with Arthur C. Clarke. I note with some relief that since 2000, Gentry Lee seems to have figured out the obvious and quietly left the Science Fiction field. For once, I’m not about to complain about the loss of an SF writer; Mister Lee gets to enjoy a meaningful life of engineering endeavour and familial happiness, while we SF fans are spared any further indignities such as The Tranquillity Wars.

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